Liam Neeson is the working man’s action star. When Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger kills a man, the weapon they use – gun, knife, steel pipe – is an extension of their bulging muscles. Neeson’s body count is the result of craftsmanship and a strong work ethic. Like a carpenter building his own house, only in Neeson’s case he also drew up the design, chopped down the trees, and killed off the wild animals that attacked him in the process. Here’s a man who raised himself out of a stereotypical Irish existence as a Guinness factory worker to become one of the most universally acclaimed actors in Hollywood, only to reinvent himself as action hero after his wife’s tragic death, which feels more like an act of vengeance than savvy business decision.
Therein lies the first fatal flaw of Non-Stop: it’s not an action movie. This is a cat-and-mouse thriller, only the cat is an alcoholic air marshal named Bill Marks and the mouse is a beta male version of John Rambo from First Blood. Yes, this is a thriller with a political message, the kind that Hollywood likes to think of as “relevant” to whatever big issues are bandied about in the news media. While I can see how the pitch, “It’s like United 93 meets Clean and Sober” might sound compelling, the end result is underwhelming.
Halfway through a flight from New York to London, Marks receives a text demanding 150 million dollars in twenty minutes or a passenger will be killed; after twenty minutes the clock will be reset and start again. The effectiveness of these early scenes is Liam Neeson’s presence, the claustrophobic atmosphere, and trying to figure out how you kill someone on a crowded plain without getting caught. After all, we’re introduced to a lot of shifty characters in the opening minutes, although the filmmakers give away their hand too soon with some problematic writing and casting decisions. The scenario is not quite as implausible as it seems, given the security concerns that still plague air travel, but it devolves into a series of twists and turns that do not entirely make sense.
Successful thrillers are those with the most believable character behavior. The situation may be irrational, but my suspension of disbelief evaporates once the protagonist turns into a lunatic. In Non-Stop, the tables turn quickly on Marks after the criminal bank account is found to be in his name. We know Marks is being framed, but even I began to question his innocence after a little while, and not in a good way. Marks turns into a shoot first, ask questions never kind of guy. He disobeys instructions, assaults passengers, and exhibits the type of paranoid conduct we’ve all come to expect from TSA employees. Protagonists in a thriller, however, should be held to a higher standard. Once he or she starts making decisions that even least frequent flier can scoff at, there is something fundamentally wrong at the screenplay level.
That’s what it is, too. The screenplay tries to have the best of both worlds to the point where even the simplistic political message doesn’t make sense. What starts out as a thriller ends as an action film, complete with heroic speech to rally the passengers, an additional ticking clock, and the hero’s one last noble deed to make up for years of trauma. It’s all tied up nice and neat, despite the international terror threat the incident posed to multiple countries. When all is said and done, I would have preferred just a straight up action movie. It’s fun to see Liam Neeson work with his hands.